Interview with John Baldessari ahead of his upcoming Tate retrospective: “Nobody does anything new”

Baldessari talked to us about his latest work, his early days as a teacher and the infamous incident when he cremated 13 years’ work—and then made cookies out of the ashes


John Baldessari is the granddaddy of the ultra-cool, Los Angeles-based, conceptual art movement that developed in the late 1960s. Together with Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha, he transformed the West Coast art scene, producing unsentimental and humorous works, often with deadpan seriousness, using photography, text, painting and video. An influential figure who was given his first career retrospective in 1981 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Baldessari inspired generations of young artists in his role as a teacher and mentor at the California Institute of the Arts from 1970 to 1988, and at the University of California at Los Angeles from 1996 to 2007. In recent years he has abandoned the rectangular canvas creating irregularly-shaped, three-dimensional works that incorporate archival photography, acrylic paint and sculptural elements mounted on a hard plastic ground. At 78, Baldessari works in his studio seven days a week and continues to reinvent himself, admitting that he gets bored easily. In June, he was honoured at the Venice Biennale with a Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement. This month, Tate Modern opens a touring retrospective, and a multi-volume catalogue raisonné of his work will be published in 2011 by Yale University Press.

The Art Newspaper: Why is there so much interest in your art today?

John Baldessari: Changes in taste fascinate me. The highest price I ever got for a work was around $4.5m for a text piece, and the most I ever got when I originally painted the works was $500. I’m still the same artist, but taste has changed—I don’t know how else to account for it.

TAN: Would you say there is a renewed interest in early conceptual art?

JB: Well I just read an interview with [dealer] David Zwirner and he says there is.

TAN: Do you think this interest might be part of a backlash against the commodity-driven art market, or a nostalgic look at the past?

JB: That was the argument used during the last crash. People said now we’re going to make serious art that won’t have anything to do with the art market—it will be neo-conceptual or minimal art. But I never saw it, and I think it’s an idealistic argument. Maybe it’s as simple as there is a new market for conceptual art now.

TAN: Tell us about your Tate show.

JB: In my mind, Tate is the most prestigious museum for contemporary art, so it’s a real honour. I’ve been very fortunate to have had several retrospectives. There was one very good one in Vienna at MUMOK in 2005 that was organised concurrently with the Kunsthaus in Graz. Jessica Morgan at Tate is a younger generation and will understand and interpret my work in a different way.

TAN: What new work are you showing at Tate?

JB: I’m creating a room with a giant three-dimensional brain mounted on a wall with a blue sky in the background. It’s meant to look like the brain is floating.

TAN: For your concurrent show at Sprüth Magers gallery in London you are creating a tableau vivant.

JB: I’ve never made a tableau vivant before and I thought it would be fun. It’s based on a prior work that I showed in Krefeld, Germany, with an ear-shaped couch flanked on either side by a pair of upturned noses filled with flowers. I’m creating an all-white ambiance to mimic an art deco apartment from the 1930s, and I have asked a production designer from Los Angeles to help. There will be a platinum-blonde woman with a long white satin gown, a cigarette holder…you get the idea.

TAN: In 1970 you famously cremated your pre-1966 paintings, going so far as to publish an affidavit of your action in the San Diego Union-Tribune. How many works did you cremate?

JB: I could give you a ballpark figure, but my way of measuring it is this: in the crematorium, they had 3x6x10-inch silver cardboard boxes that could accommodate the ashes of one adult, and a smaller box that was used for severed limbs or babies. I filled seven adult boxes and one baby box with ashes from paintings that I made between 1953 and 1966.

TAN: Why did you destroy 13 years of work?

JB: When I look back now it seems insane, but at the time it made sense. I hadn’t been selling any work at all. For me those abstract expressionist days were about the experience of doing the work, and not so much about the outcome. I thought the way to get rid of the paintings and be reductive was to burn them in the crematorium. We had to make the paintings bite-sized—they were drawn and quartered paintings.

TAN: Where are the ashes today?

JB: At the crematorium they asked me if I wanted an urn and I chose a bronze in the shape of a book. But of course it couldn’t hold all of the ashes so they’re still in boxes. I made some into cookies, and there’s only one person, Willoughby Sharp [the late artist], who ate one. I had this idea that the pigments came from the earth, and the paintings would be destroyed and someone would eat them and shit them out, so they’d go back into the earth again. It would be an eternal circle.

TAN: After the cremation you began teaching at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) where you made several videos. Why did you switch from painting to video?

JB: Well I think that’s a little too reductive, because I wasn’t switching from painting to video. I was trying to broaden what art might be beyond painting and sculpture. A lot of people thought I was denying painting, but I wasn’t. And the only reason I started doing video is that Cal Arts opened at around the same time the Sony Portapak [the first portable video recording device] came out, and we had 26 of them at the school. But that was just one of the things I was doing at the time. I was also making art books, posters, art in publications and photography.

TAN: There is a performance aspect to your videos that we don’t see elsewhere.

JB: The reason is that nobody could afford models, so you used yourself. And I remember [photographer] Bill Wegman had a great quote: “You can always tell a video from that period because at the end of the tape the artist gets up and shuts off the video machine.”

TAN: What were the early days of Cal Arts like, with Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins and Marian Shapiro on staff?

JB: It was wonderful, the school was 24/7 and you could never do everything. We had a great music department and Ravi Shankar was teaching and John Cage came through—it was a pretty exciting place.

TAN: You have been described as a key figure in the language-based conceptual art movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Why did you stop using text in your work?

JB: Well, it became problematic for me. At first I was fighting two battles; I wanted to get photography accepted as art, and I wanted to get language accepted as art. At a certain point I could see that those battles had been won, obviously not solely by myself. Another reason was that I didn’t like prioritising English.

TAN: You have said that as a child you felt like an outsider because your parents Hedvig Jensen (b. Denmark) and Antonio Baldessari (b. Italy) were immigrants. Did this influence your work?

JB: Having to explain myself to them in the only language I knew, which was English, made me think about how to communicate and how to make things clear. My father died at around 100 years old and even then he spoke broken English.

TAN: Why did you have a stronger following in Europe in the 1970s than in the US?

JB: I think there was more of an embrace of minimal, conceptual and pop art in Europe than there was in the US. A lot of American artists who didn’t have much response here showed with the Konrad Fischer Gallery in Düsseldorf.

TAN: Describe your relationship to technology.

JB: Well some years back I wrote a piece called “Video like a Pencil” and the point I was trying to make is that video should be a tool. But too often the tail wags the dog and the medium is the message.

TAN: Can you describe your latest series?

JB: I’m doing hands and feet now. It’s a challenge because it’s so clichéd. After this I plan to end my body parts series.

TAN: Are there any artists today whose work you admire who are doing something new?

JB: Nobody does anything new. I’m an incredible fan of Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Sigmar Polke—but I don’t want to prioritise.